Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Review: 'One Second After' by William Forstchen

One Second After (2009)
William Forstchen (1950-)

350 pages

Although a work of fiction, One Second After is also William Forstchen’s attempt to bring more awareness to what he sees as an imminent threat that too few Americans recognize: a terrorist attack using a few atomic bombs to create an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that destroys not only the US power generation and distribution grid, but also most electrical devices, from modern cars, to household appliances.

The basic concept (as explained in more detail in the novel, as well as in an afterward by a military expert) is that the explosion of an atomic bomb creates an EMP, which is picked up by nearby electrical equipment and, essentially, overloads their circuits, like a lightning strike. If such an explosion occurs above the atmosphere, then the atmosphere can act as an “enhancer” to the effect, and the area affected and the impact of the EMP becomes significantly larger.

The story takes place in a small town in the western hills of North Carolina, near Ashville. Early on the residents suddenly lose power; their appliances go silent, their cars --- except for older models that don not have electronics --- stop running, and even the telephone system dies. The main character in the novel, having left the military to come teach in this, his wife’s home town, soon realizes that an EMP has most likely been the cause, that much of the US has been affected, and that life will be a long time, if ever, in returning to ‘normal.’ What follows is Forstchen’s vision of how American society would slide in the aftermath of such an event, and how principled groups of people would struggle to survive and resist the loss of, as the characters mention several times, the American Dream.

And the vision presented is frighteningly realistic. Aside from the immediate impact of the loss of most all of the electrical devices we take for granted, the sudden collapse of the distribution network of food, medical supplies and all other goods dramatically reduces the sustainable population. Add to that the elimination of the complex social structure that guides --- and enforces --- civilized behavior, and the result is a chaotic struggle to survive. Forstchen tells a compelling and often moving story of good people fighting to maintain their personal principles and belief in the American way of life even as they face both personal loss as well as the potential destruction of the community they love.

The story, however, also tends to be heavy-handed in some way. For one, a wide current of American uniqueness runs through the story: the main characters repeatedly arguing that something must or must not be done a certain way not because it is the proper way for human beings to behave, but because it is the way Americans behave, and to do otherwise is to slip into communism, socialism or totalitarianism --- by implication to become like the rest of the world. One example is that of an Arab shopkeeper in the town, who plays no significant role in the overall story, is given a lengthy introduction apparently to make the point of how the town rallied around him when he was suspected by the FBI of terrorist activity: his presence in the story seems to be mainly to establish the goodness of true, small-town Americans. It is possible for a reader to believe in, as President Reagan put it, America as the “shining city upon a hill” without having it quite so unsubtly hammered home.

Perhaps more concerning is Forstchen’s intent with the story to stake out the EMP threat as the critical threat that faces the United State today. Early on, one of his characters complains: ‘Global warming, sure, spend hundreds of billions on what might have been a threat, though a lot say it wasn’t. This [the EMP threat], though, it didn’t have the hype, no big stars or politicians running around shouting about it…’ Having the main character, who is the intellectual, moral and philosophical center of the town and the novel, agree with the idea that ‘a lot’ of people saying global warming is not a threat shows how misguided support for it has been, only undermines his credibility and so, to an extent, the author’s claims about the threat of an EMP attack; at the very least it calls into question the thoughtfulness of his argument. Would the author accept that ‘a lot’ of people not seeing the EMP attack as a threat constitute proof that money would be wasted on preparing for it, or would he rather that decision be made on a scientific analysis of the facts? It is possible to claim that an EMP attack is a more immediate and even a more important danger than climate change, without misstating so blatantly the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

Forstchen, through his characters, also implies that intellectual and budgetary effort has been wasted on protecting against other threats, such as direct nuclear attacks on cities, rather than the EMP threat. But again, the story feels too adamant in making this point. The basic premise of the story is that the distribution system of the country collapses, along with the communication systems that allow a comforting sense that the larger society (and its protections) has remained intact, and so the country descends into a chaotic fight for survival. But, in another recent novel, World Made by Hand by James Kunstler, the country follows a similar descent into chaos, in this case after nuclear bombs are exploded in two major port cities, Los Angeles and Washington DC. The destruction of the cities not only shuts down functioning government, but also leads to panicked rules being put in place that cause major disruptions in transportation of goods around the world --- most critically the distribution of oil. And without oil, there is ultimately little electricity, because oil is at the heart of the distribution of not only food and medicine, but also coal. The full impact takes somewhat longer to play out, but Kunstler ends up in the same place as Forstchen: many people die, small communities struggle to survive, larger cities devolve into chaos. The same result, but no EMP involved.

Add to this the pure fantasy in One Second After that the rest of the world somehow survives well (at least sufficiently well to be able to have the US receive aid from other countries and allow them even to take advantage of the situation to invade US territory), the world economic situation apparently not significantly affected by the 100% loss of the American market; hard to imagine when the recent recession of 2008 in the US has left the world economy deeply struggling --- a recession that is minor relative to what the US faces in the novel.

Despite these shortcomings, Forstchen’s novel presents a fascinating though disturbing vision of the effect, due to whatever cause, that the collapse of the US economic and political structure would have on all of our lives.

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The author’s website, including a page on how to prepare for an EMP attack.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Book Review: 'Girl by the Road at Night' by Dave Rabe

Girl By The Road At Night: A Novel of Vietnam (2010)
David Rabe (1940-)

230 pages

She’s a complete f**king mystery, like the weather in some far-off part of the world changing the weather where he is. Like the planets and their shifting in a horoscope, and you read it in the newspaper and say, “What the f**k?” (p. 194)

Pfc Joe Whitaker, having drifted through life with little in the way of a plan, his aimlessness leading to frustration that can quickly turn into anger, finds himself a few days away from the hard certainty of deployment to Vietnam, as David Rabe’s new novel Girl By the Road At Night opens. Half-a-world away, Quach Ngoc Lan earns money for herself and her family as a prostitute at a small roadside business area in South Vietnam, trying to make sense of her separation from her family and the traditions she grew up with, and looking for some consoling connection to another person, even as she tries to remain disengaged from the physical and emotional traumas that come with her work. When their paths finally cross, each becomes dimly aware of having found a kindred soul in the turmoil of the war that surrounds them. But mystifying cultural differences and the written and unwritten rules of the soldiers on both sides make the relationship that develops between them a struggle at every step.

Along the way, David Rabe, a Vietnam Veteran himself, provides stark images of the chaotic situation the American soldiers stepped into in Vietnam. They are able to mix freely with the civilians in the towns and cities around their bases, but certain areas remain off-limits to them, dangerous for no clear reason; they find the civilians and South Vietnamese army dependent on them, but distrustful and fearful at the same time; they walk nightly patrols guarding a camp carved out of the jungle, not allowed to arm their weapons, and not sure who might be waiting in the dark on the other side of the fence as they pass by. And, what for me drove home the disconcerting nature of the war, the cognitive dissonance it must have caused, was the description of Whitaker’s meals at several points in the mess hall; for example, “He downs two cheeseburgers with tons of catsup and piles of fired potatoes, piles of pickles, some orange juice, and several cups of coffee” (p. 209). It is as if Whitaker has been able to pass from the jungles of South East Asia, into a diner on any street in the US, before passing a short time later back into the chaos outside. It somehow brings home too, more clearly than a description of all the equipment of war, the monumental undertaking of moving essentially a community, its people and material and structure, up out of one country and dropping it into another.

Rabe also brings references to Vietnamese cultural and literary traditions into the novel, making the story more than that of simply an American soldier in Vietnam. As Lan tries to make sense of her place in a Vietnam turned upside down by war, and her troubled relationship with Whitaker, she considers them in the light of the traditions she has grown up with, and the stories she knows from her youth. For an American reader, this can be a fascinating part of Rabe’s novel --- the reason for reading, really, to learn about some other people and their history.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Review: 'The Grand Design' by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand Design (2010)
Stephen Hawking (1942 - ) and Leonard Mlodinow (1954 -)

199 pages

“Why is there a universe, and why is the universe the way it is?” (p. 123)

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow go right to the big picture in their new book The Grand Design. In a quick 200 pages they provide an overview of the development of theories to describe the natural world, from the creation stories of early civilizations, through the thought experiments of Greek scientists and philosophers, to the growth of the scientific method in the work of Newton and others, leading finally to the focus of their book, the modern theories that physicists are working on to try to unify the behavior of everything, from the very small to the very large.

The authors introduce the concept of models --- which are developed to describe observed behavior in nature --- and the role of the scientific method in evaluating these models. A physicist will study physical behavior through experimental observation and develop a model in order to describe that behavior and to predict future behavior. Over time the model will be subjected to tests that either support it as an accurate description of the physical behavior, or that demonstrate it is inadequate. When a model is contradicted by experimental observation, it must then either be enhanced, to account for the new observed behavior, or replaced by another model that more accurately reflects the behavior.

As an example, over many years Newton’s laws were found to accurately model the interaction of objects seen in nature; around the beginning of the 20th century, however, as physicists explored the behavior of particles at the atomic level, it was found that Newton’s laws no longer accurately applied. New, more accurate, models (quantum mechanics) were eventually developed to replace Newton’s laws at this tiny scale. Hawking and Mlodinow point out, however, that physicists "are still working to figure out the details of how Newton's laws emerge from the quantum domain" (p. 68). So, two models end up being used: the familiar Newton’s laws for the behavior of larger objects, and the models of quantum mechanics at the atomic scale.

The difficulty of reconciling these two different models for the interaction of objects into a single model is a part of the larger challenge described in the book of creating a single, unified ‘theory of everything’: a single theory that will describe all observed behavior between objects (that is, the four known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force). One such theory that the authors introduce is the so-called ‘M-Theory’, which rests on string theory, and represents one of the principal paths being followed by today’s physicists in their current search to find a unified theory.

Hawking and Mlodinow in fact conclude the book by arguing that “M-theory is the only candidate for a complete theory of the universe.” (p. 181). Their claim rests on the apparent (though still to be conclusively demonstrated) characteristic of M-theory to be fully consistent with the strong anthropic principle, which “suggests that the fact that we exist imposes constraints not just on our environment but on the possible form and content of the laws of nature themselves” (p. 155). Thus, the strong anthropic principle states that if the fundamental laws of nature were much different than they are observed to be, life would be impossible. (The weak anthropic principle is based on the idea that “our own knowledge of our existence imposes rules that select, out of all the possible environments, only those environments with the characteristics that allow life.,” (p. 154) for example, the distance of our planet from the sun.)

As interesting as the final chapters are on how M-Theory could be the unifying theory that describes how the universe came to exist, it is the authors extended discussion of models, and the scientific method used to develop and confirm them, that may be the most interesting aspect of their story. The authors’ discussion of the models of quantum mechanics drives home a critical point: a model is not a description of how a set of objects interact, but rather a way of describing the outcome of the interaction, and predicting the outcomes of future such interactions.

At the macro level of everyday experience it can be easy to conflate these two ideas. We throw a ball and, taking into account the forces that act on it --- friction and gravity --- we can predict where the ball will land. It is easy to begin to think that we can ‘see’ the pull of gravity on the ball, and to imagine, because we can accurately predict the effect of gravity on the ball, that we have any understanding of how gravity is actually exercising its effect on the ball. In reality, and as made clear by the authors, what we really have is the barest idea how gravity physically carries out its work; we only have a very accurate description of the result.

For me, although I have little understanding of quantum mechanics, this makes more palatable the idea that much of the models of quantum mechanics deal with probabilities. As the authors state it, “according to quantum physics … nature does not dictate the outcome of any process or experiment, even in the simplest of situations. Rather, it allows a number of different eventualities, each with a certain likelihood of being realized.” (p. 72) The idea that nature might not be deterministic is a difficult one to accept, and it is some consolation to remember that quantum mechanics is a model of the behavior observed in nature --- a very accurate model based on much testing, but still only a model. And I have the consolation of being in good company: “It is, to paraphrase Einstein, as if God throws the dice before deciding the result of every physical process. That idea bothered Einstein, and so even though he was one of the fathers of quantum physics, he later became critical of it.” (p.72)

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